Canadian author Margaret Atwood has become ubiquitous this year for many reasons, not least because the HBO adaptation of her classic piece The Handmaid’s Tale won eight Emmy awards, three Critics’ Choice Television Awards and two Golden Globes. However, underneath the accolades lies a worry among many of her most loyal fans that she has problematic attitudes towards sexual assault victims.
Atwood was one of those women who I felt was infallible. But last year she become one of the most high profile signatories of a letter calling for what they called the ‘fair treatment’ of novelist Steven Galloway, who was fired from his job as the chair of UBC’s creative writing program. Although many of those who signed it say it was calling for an independent investigation – and not questioning the validity of the allegations – it was met with huge public outcry.
To make matters worse, Atwood has recently shared some questionable articles relating to the #MeToo campaign. One in particular, an op-ed by Andrew Sullivan, calls the movement ‘excessive’ and uses the phrase ‘mild handsiness’ to describe some allegations of harrassment. Mild handsiness? Really? In previous articles, Sullivan has also described the left as ‘intolerant of free speech’ and intersectionality as an ‘academic craze’ – not a journalist you’d expect Atwood to be sharing to her 1.85 million followers.
And Atwood’s response?
In the face of this upset and, for some, downright confusion, Atwood wrote her own article. Am I a bad feminist? She muses.
It seems that I am a “Bad Feminist.” […] I am conducting a War on Women, like the misogynistic, rape-enabling Bad Feminist that I am.
Like Peter Tatchell has done previously, Atwood tells us – in a globally read and renowned publication – how her views are being silenced and her free speech is at stake. It’s a textbook response, just not one I would have dreamed seeing from one of the world’s most nuanced and intelligent writers.
I guess the new saying is ‘never tweet your heroes’
There is undoubtedly truth in the issues Atwood tweets about – issues that have risen to the forefront of our minds since #MeToo and #TimesUp have hit the news. There must be a rigorous and fair process for every person who reports, and everyone who is accused of, sexual assault. We must – we the media and we as a society – learn the complex but important distinction between assault, harrassment, violence and rape. And whatever picture is painted of the so-called ‘intolerant left’, nobody wants to see anyone falsely accused.
We must, of course, believe and respect every woman who comes forward with her story, whilst still acting with due diligence towards those named. Those two are not mutually exclusive.
But what Atwood fails to understand is the implications of an author like herself – almost synonymous to some with the word feminism – asking questions which could cast doubt on the integrity of a movement women so desperately need right now. Why would Atwood – creator of The Red Center, of Offred, of Moira – be asking whether #MeToo has gone too far? How can the world’s best dystopian author not see the dystopia in the world we currently live in?
Age is not just a number
We’ve seen it in everyone from Dawn French to Julie Birchill – one thing this latest story confirms is the unwillingness of second wave feminists to stand up for young women. It’s clear from Atwood’s article that she believes age is an important indicator of feminist value, stating that she’ll be adding bad feminist ‘to the other things I’ve been accused of since 1972’. Other articles have called for younger feminists to ‘respect their elders’.
In reality, though, Atwood’s age – along with her power as an author, a celebrity, a white middle class, comfortable woman – means responsibility. If she’s not using her platform to bring a voice to the voiceless – but rather shouting over them – is she really a good feminist after all?
After this heartbreaking realisation, only one thing is abundantly clear: the feminist role models we’ve been searching for don’t exist. Instead, we must become them.
Featured image by Mark Hill, reproduced under the Creative Commons Licence